At 8:00 PM downtown Ann Arbor is bright and loud. The white streetlights blend with neon red OPEN! signs and the flashing blue and green swirls of the dance club. In the evening, passers-by have to shout over the heavy beat of the dance club’s music. A teenage couple laughs and clings to each other as they walk down the brightly lit shops, and a mother carries her screaming toddler away from a candy store. But in the middle of this bright and loud world of asphalt and electricity, a soft, yellow light shines out of a narrow storefront whose windows are stacked with yellowed books. The banner over top reads “Dawn Treader Bookshop.” I don’t visit downtown Ann Arbor much (because I hate parallel parking). But it is this out-of-place bookshop that brings me to downtown Ann Arbor.
When I open the door of the Dawn Treader, a bell rings, as if the door believes it lives in small town America. Any bookworm will first notice the air—stuffy, brittle, dusty. It’s the smell of books. Even the tiny lobby is stuffed with tables of books, mainly displays of titles like Gladwell’s Tipping Point or Brown’s Boys in the Boat. But these displays are—at least somewhat—crisp and organized. As I thumb through a copy, a man at the crammed checkout points me to the back and tells me to explore.
Even Robinson Crusoe didn’t have so much to explore. As I move toward the back, the smell of books grows, overwhelming me. The aisles of books give only enough room for a person’s shoulders, but not more. And Mr. Bumble probably wouldn’t have a chance. The shelves run floor to ceiling, crammed with books. Stacks of books higher than my knee crowd the aisles. I can see books, smell books, feel books, and almost taste books. But I can’t hear the books. All I can hear is the heavy-footed dancers on the floor above, pounding to a heavy metal beat.
The small staff keeps the shelves fairly organized. Down the history aisle, signs read “Australia, “Vietnam,” “Egypt.” As I turn the corner, my finger follows the line of books and ends on the nose of a 6’6’’ Egyptian sarcophagus. Ordinarily, a sarcophagus in a bookshop would surprise me, but the mummy seems at ease. After all, both he and the books are only dead scholars wrapped in yellowed pages.
Walking through the walls of books, I watch the characters cram into the shelves. The hungry little caterpillar squirms around the children’s section. The boxcar children, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy boys congregate on the shelf vertically, horizontally, or any way to fit. Unlucky copies gather in piles on the floor. But most shelves are full of memoirs and melodramas, dictionaries and lectionaries, travel guides and vehicle repair guides. The alphabetically marked fiction shelves boast Dante, Darwin, Dumas, Du Bois, Dunbar, Dickens, and Dickinson. To the Dawn Treader’s customers, just fingering through the books is like seeing old friends. The whole shop resembles a high school reunion.
And the Dawn Treader’s customers only add to the general lack of space. A boy clogs up the D’s in fiction, reading the opening line of Hard Times. Occasionally, he’ll laugh at Thomas Gradgrind’s all-important facts. The clinging teenagers from the neon sidewalks are now thumbing through the dystopian section to find Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “You won’t believe how good it is,” the girl tells her boyfriend. Even the screaming child from the candy store is smiling as his mother reads Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin to him in a crammed corner.
With people-watching and book-exploring, I find (like Rip Van Winkle) that minutes have turned to hours, and it’s past my time to leave. Usually, I’ll snag a classic I’ve not read yet or a Dickens novel I don’t own and go to the checkout. With a book under my arm, I hear the bell of the Dawn Treader door as I enter downtown Ann Arbor again. Drivers are still honking, lights still flashing, music still blaring.
Often, I wonder how this overstuffed trough of literature can compete with the pizzazz of the NECTO night club upstairs—how it stays relevant to anyone other than me. But it does. And it stays relevant not by competing with modern city life but by being a part of it.
I think someone’s been telling us a lie that bookshops that don’t rank as tourist attractions don’t belong in modern society: “If it’s not Mackinac Island, it’s gotta be Detroit.” But the Dawn Treader sits right in the middle of the lights and noise to prove that a building crowded with books can be crowded with people too—to prove that books aren’t outdated or irrelevant. Books explain our past, interpret our present, and inspire our future. Books are vital.
Jeremy Robertson is a junior studying Humanities and Cross-Cultural Studies at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin. Jeremy enjoys writing personal essays, short stories, and stage scripts. He has published a one-act comedy play as a high school senior. Jeremy grew up in Ypsilanti, Michigan with his five siblings and most loves reading, writing, and theatre.